Choosing who and what to feature on this site always starts with the same question: what is about a given brand or person that really resonates? It sounds easy but in reality, it’s one of the parts of my job that’s actually the hardest and that’s particularly true when it comes to this careers series. There are countless women doing incredibly inspiring things, whether that’s taking a giant leap of faith on a new idea or women who are simply killing it at their top of their game in their chosen professions. The greatest thing is that they’re not exceptions to the rule. When considering who to feature here, though, I’m on the hunt for someone who is just as dynamic as their CV; someone who will inspire you, no matter how far their career journey may seem from yours and, above all else, someone who is as comfortable talking about the bumps in the road along their journey, as they are about their triumphs.
Choosing Katherine Ormerod to kick-start this on-going series this year was a no-brainer for all of those reasons. She is all of those things. Many of you will recognise her name from the pages of Grazia, where she served as the magazine’s senior fashion news and features editor, but to start and end there will miss a much bigger picture. By way of a bit of background, Katherine had no intention of becoming a journalist. In fact, she found the industry intimidating. It was a stint working on the shop floor at Harvey Nichols that changed that and ultimately led to her studying an MA at London College of Fashion; that, and the fact that it was the only way to fund living and interning in London. The rest, as they say, is history.
She cut her teeth at Matches Fashion at the start of the dot com bubble and it was sheer ballsiness that helped her bag her first writing gig for The Independent, all while being an intern mind you. She’s gone on to lend her talent with words for everyone from Sunday Times Style, Stylus, Glamour and now Lyst, where she recently joined as editorial director. It’s been more than a year since she left her role at Grazia to start her own digital content agency, something she maintains alongside her role at Lyst and it’s clear that she’s enjoying the creative freedom.
Perhaps her biggest career move all, The Fashion Content Agency is an interesting culmination of her decade long tenure in the industry. With clients ranging from the Dazed Group to House of Fraser and an endless list of industry and influencer friends, you’d be hard pressed to find someone as uniquely positioned to connect people and make interesting things happen.
Now straddling both, she is certainly busier than ever but what has been the greatest discovery for me from the moment we met is to her utter lack of pretension. In person, she’s warm, funny, always on the top of her game but also incredibly supportive to those closest to her. Whatever she has in store at Lyst this year, I have no doubt that she will do it make her mark, without taking herself too seriously. So without further adieu, meet Katherine Ormerod…
To be completely honest I had zero thoughts of going into fashion aged 18. I was aiming to get a solid academic degree and then do a law conversion. I was primarily interested in traditional success—in financial terms. I was the first person in my family to get through sixth form and go to university and my family made a lot sacrifices to pay my school fees. Journalism or fashion just didn’t come into the picture. Then I got a job at Harvey Nichols on St Andrews Square in Edinburgh. I was working on the contemporary floor in 2004 and Phoebe Philo’s Chloe collections were played on a loop to hypnotic effect. I’d always loved glamour and magazines, but that’s when I got hooked on high-end. The rest is history.
When I left uni, I was incredibly intimidated by the industry. My mum had worked in advertising in the 70’s and has always been very polished, and I was pretty worldly as I was born in Munich where my father still lives, but I just wasn’t raised in circles where anything fashion or media-related seemed tangible. I didn’t have a single contact in any related industry. I decided to do my master’s in Fashion History & Theory at London College of Fashion, a) because I needed the student loan to pay my rent while interning and b) because I was scared. At this point both my parents lived abroad as mum had relocated to Cape Town, and moving to London on my own was very nerve-wracking. I felt really safe in academia, so it felt like a good next step.
Of course, I was also really interested in the course. It was a joy to have that time in my life to explore my passion. We studied semiotics, the politics of taste and fashion history in a rigorously theoretical way. I particularly loved the philosophy side of the course. We also produced a huge thesis. Mine was on the lost history of mid-century British Couture, specifically the designer John Cavanagh. I spent months tracking down every known piece of his work and detailing it. Fortuitously the V&A opened a big exhibition on mid-century couture both sides of the Channel around the same time my dissertation was completed. I’d been interning at The Independent at the time and pitched a piece around my dissertation to the then Fashion Editor, Susannah Frankel. That was my first piece in print and I went on to work with Susannah for two years at Grazia several moons later.
Without my master’s, I wouldn’t have been able to intern for nearly two years (I worked around my classes, and missed a few here and there, but managed to fit in 9 months at InStyle, a year at Sunday Times Style and a month at The Independent. I also had to take out a loan which I didn’t pay back until I was 29 as expenses were set at £50/week. The struggle was real. My master’s still informs the way I think about fashion, but more than that, it had a big impact on the way I see taste as an indicator of class, tribe membership and the ultimate expression of identity.
I don’t think traditional journalism training is important. Everything I thought before my Master’s was wrong. I ended up interviewing for 6 assistant roles over the space of nearly a year, and whenever editors saw my CV, they said I was overqualified —even though I’d never had a job. I ended up taking all my qualifications off my CV, and just leaving the experience there. It’s the internships and the connections I made during that period that got my foot in the door. As for training, it’s much more important to find a mentor for an aspiring writer—someone who can just be honest with you. Very few writers come out of university ready to write without editing and sub-editing. It’s how you learn from that process which is the real training. However, I’d say a background in digital journalism with a solid understanding of SEO and audience behaviour is definitely important for any aspiring writer these days. The industry is in such an intense state of flux, and this kind of digital knowledge is truly invaluable.
My first role after graduating was as a style writer at Matches Fashion. I was put forward by Sharon Ridoynauth, then Fashion Editor at Sunday Times Style. Matches had just launched their e-commerce site and I was writing product descriptions, homepage captions and marketing copy. I love [founders] Ruth and Tom [Chapman] and the PR team at Matches, especially Hannah Lawton who hired me. But there’s no two ways about it, the work was soul destroying. But it was also incredible in retrospect to have been there at the start of the e-com revolution. My digital experience there has guided my career ever since.
Any first job is a learning curve. I think it’s about keeping your heard and knowing this isn’t the job; it’s a step on the journey. I’m only just a millennial and I definitely didn’t have any sense of entitlement. Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of ‘graduate divas’ and I think the lessons I’ve learnt is to just do your job as well as you can, be pleasant, reliable and grateful that you’re on the way. No-one owes you anything. Ambition can really cloud the fact that you need to do your time. Caption writing makes you very concise, which is a blessing for any journalist. I cut my teeth with the motto ‘all killer no filler’, and it’s served me well.
Looking back, I’ve taken major risks in my career – I’ve left incredible jobs with nowhere to go, I’ve moved country without a single contact (South Africa, 2010) and I’ve set up my own business. And I don’t have wealthy parents or a trust fund… Fear is a huge part of life. But ultimately, staying still is not in my nature and this world is changing so quickly, you just have to get some balls and push yourself off the cliff.
Working on a magazine was the be-all and end-all to me. When Sunday Times Style called, I didn’t hesitate to take the job for a second. I’d already interned there for a year and Sharon—who is the woman I owe it all to— had become a dear friend. Plus, you just can’t beat STS; it’s an incredible publication. I started as fashion assistant to Sara Hassan and then assisted Natalie Hartley for 18 months. We had a ball. At the time I knew (and so did everyone else) that I wanted to be a writer. I had this incredible privilege to be on these shoots with Nat—who is still one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met—and all I was excited about was the lunch. The biggest lesson I learnt over those years is who I wasn’t. I am not a stylist in waiting and I don’t have the patience for a shoot environment. I ended up moving on to the features desk to assist the whole team and, the editor, Tiffanie Darke. During that time, I learnt that I’m not cut-throat. I just don’t have it in me. That doesn’t mean I’m a walkover as I certainly stand up for myself, but I prefer to collaborate than scoop. Back then, a lot of what I’ve done since would be seen to be ‘in bed’ with advertisers and brands, but my temperament is better suited to creative partnerships. I left Style without another job to go to which was probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life.
Paula Reed, then Fashion Director at Grazia, recruited me. I’d been working in trend forecasting at Stylus.com and travelling constantly—I actually met Paula in Tel Aviv. I just wasn’t learning where I was, and knew that Paula had so much incredible experience. When I met Grazia’s former editor, Jane Bruton, I knew immediately that I would love to work for her. The role was extremely broad. Day-to-day included morning conference (once described as a ‘fashionable hen party’—I’m not going to lie, it was probably the most fun you can have without a G&T), then writing fashion features and 10 hot stories. I was also brought on to manage the fashion team’s input to the website and ended up being second in command to the incredible digital talent that is Jess Vince (who now runs her own business, Dressr). That meant writing one or two stories every day for the site and managing the fashion team’s digital schedule.
I also ate out a lot. I was lucky enough to be invited to some of the most amazing events and dinners —the opportunity to meet so many people is the number one reason I love my job. Sure there are some shady people in fashion, but the same goes for any industry. I’ve met all my best friends though work. I also did a lot of radio, TV and commercial work for Grazia’s creative solutions team. I started my Instagram account about a year into working at the magazine and that ambassadorial side of the package just grew. There was also a lot of travel. I fell in love first with New York, then Los Angeles, but I also covered stories in Moscow, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong and Shanghai… and then there was collection coverage on top. My first season I covered all four cities on my own which made me realise you need much less sleep than you think you do. The following seasons I covered New York, London and Paris fashion weeks. The job was a gift—not that it didn’t come without its issues—but I have so many happy memories of that era.
Deadlines over shows were crazy—I’d file two long read pieces for the magazine in New York, normally finishing up on an image edit, trend report and designer interview after 2am three nights in a row. I’d then have to be up at 5am to speak to my assistant editor before conference. After making an hour’s worth of edits, it would be time to get in the shower for another 10 hours of back-to-back shows and then reports and celebrity snippets to file all day. I’m well known for losing my phone at fashion week, but really the fact that it wasn’t my mind is the true surprise. I’m definitely not someone who thrives under pressure.
I left Grazia to set up my own agency at a time where I had just split from my husband and felt deeply that I wanted to be financially independent. While I loved my job, you don’t work on magazines to make money and I wanted to save to buy a flat. Ultimately it was a financial decision which is sad, but a reality. I think the idea for the business came from all the commercial work I was doing at Grazia and my relationships with the blogger community. There just seemed to be such a niche for well-conceived editorial in the digital brand world. There’s never a right time to go out on your own; you’ll always freak out but things will always be fine. I ended up having such a varied work life including freelance writing, editing store magazines, consumer analysis, ad agency work, running influencer programmes, working as an influencer in my own right, and the brand work I’d aimed to do. I also served as fashion editor-at-large at Glamour. I love writing, so I wanted to keep that door open. Plus, this is an image-based industry and it never harms to have the power of a great brand associated with you. I have loved working with the Glamour team. I became friends with their Fashion Editor, Lucy Walker, in the InStyle cupboard back in 2006 and Natalie [Hartley] has played a huge role in my career. You just have to be open to opportunities and realise it will have its own life.
There’s no doubt a lot of brands are in a transition period. I think an agency like mine would probably not have had the same level of success three or four years ago, but now everyone is on board. Digital competency is not a niche skill; it’s imperative for GMV across the board. My network was everything when it came to finding clients. All those dinners and saying yes to every meeting had a huge impact when I went out on my own. The first three weeks were dire. I wore a cashmere onesie and put on half a stone. After that, it was the realisation that there are plenty of sharks out there and not everyone means what they say. I am very contract-happy these days having been burned. I saved hard for four months before I launched, but this was on an editorial salary. The reality was that I could have been back on my mum’s sofa four months later if it hadn’t worked. Investment is great, but I think you need to test the market first and work out exactly what you are before you start making promises and putting that pressure on yourself.
I certainly couldn’t live with someone who wanted me home for supper every night. My hours have always been long, and half my heart belongs to my career. I’m lucky that my family live abroad so we’re well-used to quality over quantity time. My boyfriend works in the industry and is very happy in his own company. He is generally unsympathetic to any whinging, but a rock when times are actually hard. It’s a very good balance. I do believe you need to be in tune with your own internal compass and not rely on too many people to make your decisions.
I met Joanna Christie, Lyst’s Head of Brand and Communications over a year ago. I was still working at Grazia and we had one of those conversations that I can still remember today. I felt incredibly drawn to Lyst, even then. The work I’ve done with my agency just made me realise the power of insight and Lyst is the home of that knowledge. The most powerful content in the digital world is that which reflects quantifiable intent, and not necessarily instinct. I wanted to be part of that conversation, so when the editorial director role came up, it gave me serious pause for thought. I ended up just listening to my gut that it was too great a learning opportunity to pass up. I loved the tone of voice and sense of humour. I find most fashion brand copy completely impenetrable. If I read ‘Wrap it up’ or ‘Fringe benefits’ once more! The brands and sites I connect with are the Reformations and Man Repellers of the world. Lyst is happy to stand aside from the ‘fashionese’ and put a stake in the ground. For me 2016 is about bringing in great voices, amplifying our tone of voice and connecting with our millions of customers in an impactful way.
Looking back, I’ve taken major risks in my career – I’ve left incredible jobs with nowhere to go, I’ve moved country without a single contact (South Africa, 2010) and I’ve set up my own business. And I don’t have wealthy parents or a trust fund. At every stage I was terrified. I once didn’t sleep for four months. Fear is a huge part of life. But ultimately, staying still is not in my nature and this world is changing so quickly, you just have to get some balls and push yourself off the cliff. I’ve been strategic with some of my careers moves and I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. I’ve trusted untrustworthy people and sold myself short. These days I’m pretty fierce in terms of my career aims, but there’s no overall plan. It’s just learning, learning, learning. Curiosity is the one attribute that connects every successful woman I know in this industry. Things never work out how you imagined them, but they always work out. You owe it to yourself to open the door, who knows where you could be in three year’s time?
If there’s any advice I never got but which I had, it’s that tenacity is just as important as talent. Stop trying to make people like you and they will. The latter is still an ongoing struggle. In terms of the future, never say never but I don’t have any ambitions to launch my own title. Looking 10 years ahead is something, which I find really tricky as so much is changing so quickly in the landscape. I wouldn’t rule out the idea that I was still working in digital content, but I’d like to think it would be in a highly strategic capacity either for one or several brands. But my experience so far shows that theirs is no linear career trajectory, it’s goes left and right, up and down.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Katherine was shot in October in Paris.